Conceptualizing Political Violence and Terrorism

Global Efforts to Reduce Terrorism and Political Violence Been Effective in the Past Decade?

Conceptualizing Political Violence and Terrorism

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Terrorism does not have an assigned definition. As a matter of fact, “few terms or concepts in contemporary political discourse have proved as hard to define as terrorism” (Weinberg, Pedahzur, and Hirsch-Hoefler, 2004). The authors further point out that from as early as the 1960s and 1970s, when terrorism as a subject first appeared (or made a reappearance), various professional commentators have fund it quite challenging to come up with an articulate definition of the term that could gain acceptance across the board. Essentially, terrorism is a contemporary form of political violence. Indeed, terrorism as Gurr (as cited in Ortlung and Makarychev, 2006) points out, it is a subset of political violence. For purposes of this discussion, the definition (and interpretation) RAND assigns to terrorism will be adopted. This definition will be critical in as far as assessing the impact of global efforts to reduce terrorism and political violence is concerned: it will act as a limiter, confining and tying this discussion to the subject matter. The definition will also be important so as to distinguish terrorism and political violence from other criminal acts. According to RAND:

Terrorism is violence, or the threat of violence, calculated to create an atmosphere of fear and alarm…. The motives of all terrorists are political, and terrorist actions are generally carried out in a way that will achieve maximum publicity. Unlike other criminal acts, terrorists often claim credit for their acts. Finally, terrorist acts are intended to produce effects beyond the immediate physical damage of the cause, having long-term psychological repercussions on a particular target audience. The fear created by terrorists may be intended to cause people to exaggerate the strengths of the terrorist and the importance of the cause, to provoke government overreaction, to discourage dissent, or simply to intimidate and thereby enforce compliance with their demands (RAND – as cited in Ortlung and Makarychev, p. 22).

As per the definition above, terrorism could be applied or peddled by various actors, from states to organized groups to clandestine individuals. It is also important to note that on this front, victims of terror fall into two main categories. These are, i) opportunistic targets — those that are chosen randomly, and ii) symbolic targets — those that are chosen selectively (Weinberg, Pedahzur, and Hirsch-Hoefler, 2004).

Terrorism and Political Violence: The Last one Decade (2004 — 2014)

The United States, and pretty much the entire world, has upped its game in the war against terror since the 9/11 terror attacks. Regardless of these efforts, there are still terror networks that continue to thrive across the world. The most consequential groups or terror formations include, but they are not limited to al-Qaeda, al-Shabaab, the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front, and numerous variations of al-Shabaab. These are the groups that, in a large way, continue to pose the greatest terror threats. State sponsors of terror, at least according to the U.S. Department of State include “Cuba, Iran, Sudan, and Syria” (Maras, 2013, p. 31).

During the past one decade, many countries from across the world, and most particularly the United States, have been engaged in what could be referred to as a diplomatic and military offensive against terror, all in an attempt to pacify terrorist networks. As a matter of fact, unlike was the case a decade ago, many countries today have in place new legal frameworks and legislation to combat acts of terror. In addition, many countries have allocated significant resources to their security agencies including prison services, intelligence agencies, police, and the military. It should also be noted that in addition to adopting new strategies, nations from across the world have also created new agencies and departments, all in an attempt to further strengthen counter-terrorism undertakings.

War on Terror: Are We Winning or Loosing?

With the al-Qaeda terror formation still regarded potent and with Afghanistan still greatly insecure, the war on terror is far from being won. One does not need to look far to realize that global terror and political violence is headed in an even worse direction. Indeed, looking at the various news headlines, it is clear that the people on the opposite end of the spectrum in the war against terror — the terrorists, are gaining momentum. According to a recent report by the Rand Corporation, Salafi-jihadist groups are on the increase (Jones, 2014). For instance, while there were only 28 such groups in the year 2007, this number had increased to 49 as of the year 2013. According to the same report, while these jihadist formations launched 100 attacks in 2007, last year (i.e. 2013) saw the attacks launched by the said formations increase to 950 – a massive 1,938% increment (Jones, 2014). Even more rattling is the admission by the U.S. Department of State (2013) that terrorism and associated violence has been on an upward trend. According to the State Department, the number of terror related attacks across the world experienced almost a 50% increase last year, i.e. from 6,700 to 9,700 (U.S. Department of State, 2013).

Although the U.S. Department of State report praises allied forces for their efforts towards the pacification of al-Qaeda, the said reports also makes a startling remark: that groups affiliated to al-Qaeda are becoming stronger, and perhaps more dangerous. In seeking to expound on this assertion, the U.S. Department of State (2013) takes note of Syria’s foreign extremists and the threat they pose. Revelations that a suicide bomber who blew himself up in Syria earlier this year was indeed an American is a clear indication that the threat is not only real but also serious. A quick check on recent terror developments also reveals that the French suspect linked to the Brussels’ Jewish Museum shootings did indeed spend some time in Syria — with Jihadist fighters. This has led to what Penketh (2014) refers to as “European fears of spillover from the Syrian war…” There is, therefore, high likelihood that some of those who return home from Syria will be the new threats as far as terror and political violence is concerned. This situation is pretty much similar to the period when jihadists, among them Osama bin Laden — the future leader of al-Qaeda, were trained for the convenience of war in the 1980s Russia-Afghanistan conflict.

Last month alone, we had numerous instances of terror attacks from across the world — from the Karachi International Airport attack, to the bomb attacks in Baluchistan, to Bombings in Baghdad. In total, these events left more than 108 people dead, and numerous others badly injured. This represents only a fraction of the successful terrorist attacks carried out across the world.

For purposes of this discussion, it would be prudent to take a more detailed look closer home. As per the RAND report, Jones (2014) points out that ‘near abroad’ attacks have significantly increased in the recent past. On the other hand, however, the ‘far abroad’ attacks have been on a downward spiral (Jones, 2014). What this essentially means is that the various fragmented, decentralized formations present minimal risk to the U.S. homeland. It is also important to note that as the spokesperson of the U.S. Department of State observes, successful attacks against Americans have reduced significantly (U.S. Department of State, 2013). This information is largely welcome. It is, however, important to note that as welcome as these trends may seem, there is no reason to celebrate as yet. Lest we forget that by allocating so much focus on these appealing statistics, we run the risk of turning a blind eye on emerging threats, further afield.

The claim that the threats to the homeland have reduced does not necessarily mean that global terrorism is on its deathbed. Further, as this text points out, there are numerous emerging threats that cannot be simply ignored. The situation in Syria presents a perfect example. The emergence of Salafi-jihadist groups is a real future threat. In Iraq, there is also a presently emerging threat as far as global terrorism is concerned. A group going by the acronym ISIS recently took control of a significant portion of Mosul. Of key importance in this case is that the said group is seen as having matured in Syria, during the conflict. In the final analysis, therefore, global efforts to reduce terrorism have not been effective as they should have been — which is to say that the war against global terror is far from being won.

Putting the War on Terror into Perspective

There is the prominent military approach in which case the military has been used to pacify terror cells in the past. In the Western context, this approach has been dubbed the ‘Bush doctrine,’ whereby America and its allies reserve the right to launch attacks against jurisdictions believed to be supportive of terrorists who wield a real threat to the United States and its allies. This has, in some quarters, been referred to as ‘pre-emptive self-defense.’ For reasons that will be highlighted in the subsequent sections of this text, this approach has largely been ineffective.

There is the well-founded claim that one of the reasons the war on terror is being lost in many parts of the words is as a result of failure to grasp the workings and the grand strategy of terrorist formations. For instance, with regard to al-Qaeda, Gartenstein-Ross (2012) is of the opinion that the U.S. continues to lose the plot as far as the war against terror is concerned due to its inability to understand and integrate the grand strategy of al-Qaeda. In his well argued analysis, Gartenstein-Ross (2012) points out that as per al-Qaeda’s understanding, the Soviet economy collapsed as a result of the costs associated with the Soviet-Afghan war campaign. It is likely that al-Qaeda wants to replicate this same scenario. At least, this, in the opinion of Gartenstein-Ross (2012), is the terror group’s long-term objective. In the opinion of the author, in al-Qaeda’s thinking, the escalation of its conflict with the U.S. is likely to significantly increase defense project costs — thus further hurting the economy to the point of collapse. It is highly likely that U.S. policy makers have not grasped, or at least taken into consideration, this long-term strategy of al-Qaeda. As a matter of fact, the major policy decisions that have been made in the past seem to be playing well into this grand strategy. This is as far as politicization of the war against terror as well as the dulcification of efforts is concerned – leading to the further escalation of costs. For instance, the Department of Homeland Security’s budget nearly doubled between FY 2003 to FY 2008 (Apaza, 2011). This is a scenario replicated across the world; and possibly, this is one of the key reasons as to why i) the war against terror is being lost, and ii) the situation is likely to get worse, going forward.

Misplaced priorities and strategic blunders could also be cited as the other reasons as to why the war against terror is being lost. For instance, closer home, the Bush administration committed a strategic blunder by prematurely broadening the war against terror at a time when the relevance of strategic focus could not have been overstated. Looking back, thanks to the decision to invade Iraq, thus effectively diverting key resources from Afghanistan to Iraq, the United States created fertile grounds in Afghanistan for the re-awakening of terror cells that had already been put to sleep. This allowed for the rolling back of gains that had been made earlier on. Sadly, this is a scenario that has been replicated many times before. It is also important to note that as Jett (2012) points out, in the recent past, in seeking to prevent another attack on its soil, the U.S. has been providing security assistance to various countries, most particularly in the Middle East. As the author further points out, by aiding other governments, the U.S. is making itself somewhat less secure, and hence further increasing the likelihood of further attacks. In the new set up of things, every state, jurisdiction, or government is branded a partner in the ‘global war against terror’ as long as they show some allegiance to this particular cause. According to the author, it matters little if the said partner in the war against terror is repressive or undemocratic back home. Thus, the quick solution being peddled around is that of training “troops involved in the fighting, regardless of who they are or what they are really fighting for” (Jett, 2012). The author further points out that according to an article appearing in the New York Times, such an approach might end up creating “more terrorists than it eliminates” (Jett, 2012).

The recent wave of protests as well as demonstrations in the Arab world, dubbed ‘Arab spring’ cannot go unmentioned as far as the global war on terror is concerned. Although there are those who, like Peter Bergen (as cited in Inbar, 2013), are of the opinion that the Arab upheavals could end up hurting terror formations such as al-Qaeda, they may as a matter of fact turn out to be a boon for the said terror formations. According to Gartenstein-Ross (2012), there is a high likelihood that terror formations will position themselves to take advantage of the mess. This according to the author is more so the case if the new governments fail to adequately fulfill the high expectations of the citizenry — effectively creating fertile grounds for the development of extremist ideas and ideologies that promise instant solutions. There is, therefore, need to offer such newly elected governments all the support they need to not only identify but also nip at the bud extremist ideologies. In some countries, like Libya and Bahrain, some voices of disquiet are already emerging over the governments’ inability to address the problems affecting the common man. Although such frustrations, as Jett (2012) points out, “may not lead the demonstrators to actually become terrorists, it provides a strong incentive for them to support people who are.” This is likely to further complicate the global war against terror.

The military approach, what has variously been branded ‘pre-emptive self-defense’ — which essentially means attacking jurisdictions or ‘terror centers’ believed to be supporting terrorists — has also significantly destabilized the international system, further fueling terror campaigns and insurgencies across the world. In practice, the ‘pre-emptive self-defense’ approach is nothing more than preventive war, which has no sound legal basis. Essentially, wanton application of this doctrine has created a network of sympathizers, thus providing perfect breeding grounds for terror.

According to Hoffman (2010), terror formations are, to a large extent, learning organizations. In the words of the authors, such groups are often able to adapt and adjust “to even the most formidable governmental countermeasures to continue their struggle” (Hoffman, 2010). Somalia’s militant groups are perfect examples. For instance, after having sent its troops to Somalia sometimes in 2011, Kenya (an East African country) was largely successful in pacifying the al-Shabaab — a Somali-based militant group that has closely been to al-Qaeda. In addition to capturing most of the regions that had previously been under al-Shabaab, Kenyan soldiers also managed to dismantle the terror groups organizational and command structure — dealing a fatal blow to order and sanity in the group. The troops also managed to capture the key port town of Kismayo, a critical port that the group has in the past made use of to import ammunition and assorted weapons. Just when Kenya was convinced it had won the war, the militant group seems to be reorganizing itself. During the past one year, the terror formation has launched guerilla like attacks in Kenya, with the most prominent attack having been launched at a shopping mall popular with expatriates. This incident left more than 60 dead. This is a perfect example of the ability of terrorist formations to adapt to setbacks.

The United States suffered the same fate post Sept 11, 2001. By 2008 — seven years after successfully launching attacks in the U.S. soil, Al-Qaeda had pretty much regrouped. As Hoffman (2010), points out, although a shadow of its former self, this particular terror group had managed to regroup and re-organize itself in the Pakistani-Afghanistan boarder — a largely lawless region. This, according to the author became a sanctuary from where it could train militants, plan and launch attacks, and operate without much scrutiny.

For many, the killing of Osama Bin Laden ought to have brought to an abrupt end the operations of al-Qaeda, a group he headed for approximately two decades. Today, there are those who believe that the group has just changed form to a less centralized organization. Unlike during Osama’s leadership, when most of the terror group’s policy decisions were guided by the leader, the organization has today metamorphosed into a loose coalition of franchises. This ability of terror formations to adjust after major setbacks and morph into something else is something that ought to be taken into consideration by the various stakeholders in the war against terror. It is this ability to adapt that has seen terrorist groups manage to, or at least seem to, roll back gains made in the war against terror. It is clear from these examples that the war against terror cannot be won using the same approaches that have been applied in the past. There are no guarantees that these approaches, given that they have failed to pacify terrorist groups in the past, will be successful if applied again. In the words of Hoffman (2010, p. 360), “clearly, terrorist groups today show a degree of resiliency and capacity for survival that has increased their average life span some five to ten times that of their Cold War counterparts.”

To reduce terrorism and political violence, there is need for the modification of the existing security dimension. I would propose that nations re-evaluate their global intelligence-gathering methodologies. Of key importance in this case would be enhanced cooperation between states and the relevant foreign security agencies. As has been demonstrated, the war against terror is not an easy war. This is largely because terrorist cells are often far flung, with global centers and in some cases, intense resources. In such a case, the United States and its partners in the war against terror must consider making use of even stronger and perhaps more effective tactics in handling terror. This could include giving those in key security dockets authorization to make use of deadly force, including but not limited to, robust interrogation techniques, breaking into facilities, and threats of attack — all in a bid to derive information that could preempt or prevent acts of terror and violence. Nations and stakeholders in the war against terror may also have to embrace a massive rendition program; where in cooperation with the relevant jurisdictions, terror suspects are snatched or captured to help in the conduct of investigations, regardless of where they operate from. According to the doctrine of necessity, although some courses of action may be in violation of the existing laws; such courses of action may be justified on the grounds that they avert greater evil. The adoption of some of the counter-terror strategies I have proposed above could be controversial, and even outside of the existing legal frameworks. However, the net social gain is undeniably huge.


In the final analysis, it is important to note that the relevance of interagency and intergovernmental cooperation cannot be overstated in the global war against terror. The adoption of the so called ‘Bush doctrine’, as has been described elsewhere in this text is likely to fail. By having allies spread all over the world (as opposed to sulking ‘partners’), stakeholders in the war against terror are likely to significantly enhance their ability to collect information. As Gartenstein-Ross (2012) points out, there is also an urgent need to depoliticize the war against terror. The author also calls for the reduction of all the national-security related expenses. This is in line with his earlier arguments — as has been highlighted elsewhere in this text.


Apaza, C.R., 2011. Integrity and Accountability in Government: Homeland Security and the Inspector General. Burlington: Ashgate Publishing.

Gartenstein-Ross, D., 2012. Bin Laden’s Legacy Why We’re Still Losing the War on Terror. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley and Sons

Hoffman, B., (2010). A Counterterrorism Strategy for the Obama Administration. Terrorism and Political Violence, 21(4), pp. 359-377

Inbar, E. ed., 2013. The Arab Spring, Democracy and Security: Domestic and International Ramifications. New York, NY: Routledge.

Jett, D., 2012. Losing the War on Terror: Who We Help Is Hurting. Middle East Policy Council, 19(3), pp. 135-141.

Jones, S.G., 2014. A Persistent Threat: The Evolution of al Qaida and other Salafi Jihadists. Washington, DC: RAND

Maras, H., 2013. The CRC Press Terrorism Reader. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.

Ortlung, R.W. And Makarychev, A.S. eds., 2006. National Counter-Terrorism Strategies: Legal, Institutional, and Public Policy Dimensions in the U.S., UK, France, Turkey and Russia. Washington, DC: IOS Press.

Penketh, A., 2014. French Suspect in Brussels Jewish Museum Attack Spent Year in Syria. The Guardian, [online] 26 June. Available at:

U.S. Department of State., 2013. Country Reports on Terrorism 2013. [online]. Available at:

Weinberg, L. Pedahzur, A. And Hirsch-Hoefler, S. 2004. The Challenges of Conceptualizing Terrorism. Terrorism and Political Violence, 16(4), pp. 777-794

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